4.17 / Review

Free Your Mind! Improvising Post-Multicultural Art

By Ellen Tani June 13, 2013
"Free Your Mind! Improvising Post-Multicultural Art" panelists; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, May 6, 2013. Pictured (l. to r.): Jeff Chang, Connie Wolf, Kori Newkirk, Elisabeth Sussman, and Daniel J. Martinez. Courtesy of Stanford University. Photo: John Chunhan Liau

Held recently at Stanford University, the panel discussion “Free Your Mind! Improvising Post-Multicultural Art” offered the opportunity to peer behind the institutional curtain of a landmark exhibition—the 1993 Whitney Biennial—and revisit the conditions of its origins in order to better understand its legacy. The panel included two curators from the 1993 Biennial, Elisabeth Sussman and Connie Wolf, who sat down with the artists Daniel J. Martinez (born 1957) and Kori Newkirk (born 1970) to examine the controversial exhibition with twenty years of critical distance.

Martinez and Newkirk offered the perspectives of two generations of artists whose work is linked, in some way, to the issues taken up by the ’93 Biennial. Having lived through the civil rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s, Martinez was among the first generation of minority artists to receive graduate training in the arts, and his work Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) was included in the Biennial. Newkirk, who remembers visiting the 1993 Biennial as an observer, belongs to a younger generation whose coming of age was marked by the battles of multiculturalism in the 1990s. In 2001, he was part of the exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem—the show that introduced the term post-black into the art-critical lexicon. The 1993 Biennial and Freestyle were both catalytic landmarks in American contemporary art, evoking questions of racial and identity politics in the United States in the midst of fin de siècle and millennial anxieties.

While the Whitney Biennial had traditionally been dominated by painting and sculpture, the 1993 exhibition featured more mixed-media and installation works than paintings. The demographic makeup of the artists was markedly different as well, with white male artists in the minority for the first time in the Biennial’s history. After decades of systemic exclusion of artists of color and women from the collections and exhibition rosters of major art institutions like the Whitney, the Biennial curators released the pressure valve by actively seeking artists who had not been shown before. Taking up the social, political, and cultural zeitgeist of the early 1990s, the curators committed the 1993 Biennial to addressing the overpowering debates surrounding multiculturalism. For Wolf, the choice was obvious: “Yes, this has to happen. This is the pulse of what artists are seeing and experiencing around the country.”1

In the midst of the culture wars—marked by censorship and federal defunding of art—the stakes were high for artists, and they met the charge with a powerful energy. Their art was homemade, appeared cheap, and took unconventional forms. Their lo-fi aesthetics were seen by critics as a violation of the museum’s sacred space. Beyond appearances, the subject matter of much of the work was more invasive and assaultive than the formal problems addressed by artists in earlier Biennials. Rather than find a way into the canon safely by way of oblique theoretical approaches, the 1993 Biennial artists used art as a weapon to address sexual taboos, death, and racism.

From its diverse group of artists to its controversial inclusion of George Holliday’s videotape of the Rodney King beating, the 1993 Biennial was both groundbreaking and polemical. The vitriolic response from the press, who branded the 1993 show as “the identity-politics Biennial,” criticized the Whitney for sacrificing art and all it stood for (presumably beauty and pleasure, mainly through painting) in the name of politics and anger. The title of Peter Schjeldahl's Village Voice review gives the general idea: “Art + Politics = Biennial. Missing: The Pleasure Principle.”2 Robert Hughes, in his TIME magazine art column, also mocked it: “The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining.”3

But in a recent article, Jerry Saltz reflected on what was so special about 1993 in relation to the present: “Artists were capturing the ways that identity and the body, be they political, sexual, physical, psychological, or doomed, would become central themes of the decade. Central themes because they were necessary themes… some embraced that new reality in order to move forward; others reacted against it. The Biennial was on the side of the future, and still is.”4

Using the 1993 Biennial as a starting point, the Stanford panel examined the future to which Saltz referred: post-multicultural art. Jeff Chang, the panel moderator and director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford, enabled a frank discussion about issues of race and culture. “Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference,” he noted, pointing to a concept endemic to the ’93 Biennial that continues to vex the art world and society at large.

As panelists pointed out, the 1993 Biennial was simultaneously a success and a failure. On the one hand, it brought major cultural issues to the forefront in an unprecedented manner, but at the same time, it seems that the ensuing conversation never affected real change. Chang’s opening remarks introduced the goals of the civil rights movement and multiculturalism: to bring down legal and cultural barriers to integration. Moving to the era of multiple postspost-multicultural, post-black—the panel questioned how artistic practices concerned with identity and politics have shifted since the Biennial: What are the goals of post-multicultural art, and do they align with the legacy of the 1990s? Is the museum, often subject to strict oversight, the right context for cultural transformation to occur? Or do the necessary limits of exhibition-based practices—namely time, space, and scope—inhibit real change?

In the era immediately after the civil rights movement, debates about artistic practice seemed to focus more broadly on art itself: Conceptual art, Postmodernism, and Land art were at the forefront of critical dialogue that questioned the nature of artistic practice. Although it seems the dust has settled on these conversations, their impact has so strongly shaped contemporary art that we must negotiate their traces even though we know their moment belongs to the past. When it comes to the issues that the 1993 Biennial put front and center, however—racism, sexuality, and gender—institutions and scholars of contemporary art have constructed an echo chamber in which the Biennial’s clarion call resounds yet is never adequately answered. It is hard to move through something like race toward post-racialism, or post-multiculturalism, as these issues continually reassert themselves as unresolved and perhaps unresolvable. A case in point: a central question raised by Chang during the panel, “Is it time to abandon exhibitions that are organized around a group of artists of color that feature only, say, black artists, Chicano artists, or Asian-American artists?” went unanswered.

This silence is both a cause and an effect of a small chain reaction: when discourse on identity stagnates, as it is wont to do in an optimistically post-racial America, fewer critical approaches to the meaning of identity circulate. The result is an undeveloped notion of what making art out of post-ethnic experience means—or how it can mean anything different than art made from ethnic experience. The panel convened to tackle an issue that is far from resolved; we can’t even define it. Perhaps the issue is that the idea that we have transcended identifying categories involves big trade-offs. What we leave behind is what makes us uniquely human. What we retain, however, is a wisdom earned by grappling with the very forces of categorization: positioned in one category but well aware of the others, we not only know the rules of the game but also, as Newkirk and Martinez pointed out, develop the smarts to negotiate better. This may be the legacy of post-multiculturalism—a certain deftness, adaptability, and strategic anticipation that maneuvers around how the liberating concept of identity politics can also be limiting. Post-multiculturalism may hedge the signifiers of identity politics, but it isn’t willing to let go of its goals.

The strategy of going “head-first rather than image-first,” as Martinez phrased it, was learned from the major conceptual artists (Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, Michael Asher) who began teaching at art schools in the 1970s. If the panel exposed a new provocative concern, it was a call for a more critical connection between Conceptual art and identity politics. Martinez’s 1993 Biennial piece illustrates the productive potential of this synthesis. Breaking up the controversial sentence, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white,” into phrases (I can’t, Imagine, Ever wanting, To be, White), he printed one phrase, and occasionally the full sentence, onto each of the tags given to visitors upon their entrance to the museum—which, it’s important to emphasize, they paid for. Martinez’s piece employed the visitors as its medium, using structural linguistics to address discrimination, ethnic identity, and the imaginary.5 The visitors’ unknowing engagement became a collective, coerced performance of admission, in the confessional sense.

This strategic conceptualism is one of Martinez’s greatest legacies, directly shaping the practices of post-black art. In his words, post-black art is not a retreat from race but “a sleight of hand” and a very smart one at that. Originating from the French léger de main, a sleight of hand is a means to achieve an effect. Rather than a technique, it is a way of making something happen that is felt as surprise. Post-black art practice is very smart, especially in the eyes of an older generation that has lived through the fervor of the ’60s and the ’90s—but how does it speak to those who originated at the same time as the ’93 Biennial?

Earlier this year, I supervised a group of college students on an arts immersion trip to New York. The students were greatly affected by our visit to the exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star at the New Museum. On the one hand, they learned that the freedoms of the life they enjoy are freedoms that were hard-won through cultural conflict. On the other hand, there was a strange narcissistic intrigue at the prospect that, for example, they effectively were the babies evoked by the three hundred sixty-five abandoned strollers in Nari Ward’s installation, Amazing Grace. To be born of the same world as the works in NYC 1993 and the 1993 Whitney Biennial shook them: the relationship between their historical affinity with the art of the ’90s and the critical distance they have from it now is difficult to reconcile. And, interestingly, their responses to the panel overwhelmingly conveyed that in 2013, the very notion of "identity art" or identity as an organizing rubric for an exhibition seemed almost banal.

As Newkirk recalled, artists of his generation felt so grateful that conversations about race and sexuality were being expressed in the Biennial that they made a pilgrimage to New York to see it—as if to make sure it was real. He remembers, “It was incredibly important for us to be there to witness this moment.” And while the Biennial fixed the terms of criticism for the next twenty years, its social, political, and cultural promise doesn’t seem to have played out as well.  And we, as authors, citizens, students, and artists, are to blame for that. As Sussman reflected in a 2005 Art Journal piece, the language of the Biennial’s original criticism “came from those witnessing a change that they didn’t want to endorse, a change that they had only jargon words to describe or only words that were an inadequate shorthand for major issues.”6 Martinez lamented something of a retreat from the confrontational approach of the Biennial, a pervasive conservatism in art scholarship and institutions. Newkirk remarked, disappointed, that his students were loathe to go in the “identity direction” with their artwork. While many of its salient questions remain unanswered, what the panel did make clear is that these ongoing debates about post-racialism are a cipher, even a strange substitute, for the lack of critical conversation about human inequality in the twenty-first century. 

Daniel J. Martinez. Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con claque—Overture with Hired Audience Members 1993 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993; metal and enamel on paint, 12 x 15 in. Courtesy of Simon Preston.
 
 

Free Your Mind! Panel Discussion is on view at Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Stanford University, in Stanford, through May 6, 2013.

Notes

  1. For more on the panel discussion, please see the transcript posted here: http://www.artpractical.com/feature/free_your_mind_improvising_post_multicultural_art/.
  2. Jerry Saltz, “Jerry Saltz on ’93 in Art,” New York, February 3, 2013, accessed June 4, 2013, http://nymag.com/arts/art/features/jerry-saltz-1993-art/.
  3. Robert Hughes, “Art: The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining,” TIME, March 22, 1993, accessed June 3, 2013, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978001,00.html.
  4. Saltz, ibid.
  5. Structural linguistics, in the vein of Ferdinand de Saussure, asserts that reordering the signifying units of language (words) can change its meaning. Martinez extended this practice to a material label, rethinking the signifying units of humanity (among which race, historically made evident through skin color, is one of the most fundamental) and, in turn, imagined the possibilities of changing its meaning.
  6. Elisabeth Sussman, “Then and Now: Whitney Biennial 1993,” Art Journal 64, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 78.

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